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Friday, June 5, 2009

The Rocket Man

Time for another Digression Week. A couple more candidates for this study came in after their year had come and gone. Up first is an obscure family movie, a light comedy that is even lighter on the sci-fi.

Science fiction had been a part of American culture long enough to be material for comedy. Abbott and Costello made a big budget sci-fi spoof in 1953 with Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. 20th Century Fox's smaller budget comedy, Rocket Man (RM) is a light, heartwarming tale that is also light on the science fiction. Essentially, it is a story of honesty and virtue triumphing over lies and corruption. The story could have been told just as successfully with a magic rock or a leprechaun, or some other magic to provide the Dies ex Machina moments, but the writers opted for the sci-fi craze.

Quick Plot Synopsis
At a Captain Talray promotional stop at an orphanage, all the cool toys are handed out before little Timmy can get one. A mysterious, and apparently invisible, man in a space suit appears and causes a ray gun to appear in the empty box. The gun has magical properties. Timmy uses it to stop a speeding drunk driver from running over one of his playmates. The drunk is a political big wig. His arrest sets in motion a plot for revenge against the local Justice of the Peace, Ameila Brown. Brown takes in little Timmy. Brown is also supposed to take in a parolee. Big Bill Watkins' spy is mistaken for the parolee and taken into Brown's home. There, he falls for Brown's daughter, June. Before this, however, Tom did his dirty work and files a bid to buy the orphanage for Big Bill. He is discovered and the romance chills. Brown cannot raise enough money to top the bid. Timmy uses his ray gun to "help" Ed (the mayor and suitor of Brown) to win a poker game. Even this is not enough as Big Bill uses obscure laws to thwart Brown. At the big election eve rally, Timmy uses his ray gun to make Big Bill tell the truth. This stark admission of his arrogance and greed costs him the election. The orphanage is saved. Tom and June are romantic again. The parolee has a job. All is right in the world. The mysterious space man smiles, nods and takes a bit of his (presumed) green cheese sandwich. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The plot, while at times quite predictable, is nevertheless complex enough to keep some interest. There are a few spots of interest that give it some value too. See Notes section below.

Cold War Angle
The sci-fi aspect is only a background foil for a more conventional family-movie. As such, none of sci-fi's usual analogies are explored.

I Dream of Klaatu -- The mysterious space man who delivers the magic ray gun is the customary benevolent alien. He's here to help us. He could just as well have been a witch or a genie or a leprechaun and delivered the magic macguffin. His magic is modeled after the human notion of what divine intervention is supposed to be like. The ethereal Klaatu tells Timmy, while he sleeps, that the gun can grant wishes, but tt can only help people and never be used for selfish gain. "Use it wisely." That is what Klaatu and his many copies wanted for us -- wisdom.

Rockets on Parade -- In the first few minutes of the film, there is a glimpse of 50s life -- a science fiction character and his rocket, make a promotional stop in a small town. Such was the science fiction craze in the early 50s. In this case it is the fictional Captain Talray. Dressed in Destination Moon space suits, they bring a box of toys for the orphan boys out of their "rocket." Such tours did crisscross the country in the early 50s. Several copies of Rocky Jones' "Space Ship Mars" toured to promote Silvercup Bread. There was also a Ralston Rocket touring. RM captures a slice of this americana.

Star Gazing -- RM is a minor film, but sports several stars of 50s sci-fi. Anne Francis plays June, the typical love interest role. She would be famous for Dr. Morbius' daughter Altera in Forbidden Planet ('56). John Agar plays the romantic leading man, Tom Baxter. RM appears to be Agar's first of many B sci-fi appearances. Watch for Beverly Garland in a bit role as parolee Bob's girlfriend, Ludine. Garland would later steal the show as Claire in It Conquered the World ('56) and nurse Nadine in Not of This Earth ('57).

Car Nut Moment -- RM features a very rare automobile which is worth noting. In the early part of the movie, Big Bill Watkins is driving a Kaiser Darrin roadster. Only 435 were made in early 1954. The Darrin was the first American production car with a fiberglass body, beating the Chevrolet Corvette to market by only a few months. The Darrin was an attempt to revitalize the sagging Kaiser-Frazer brand, but was not enough. KF stopped producing cars in 1955. Nowadays, restored Darrins fetch six figure prices. Also noteworthy is the Darrin's sliding doors. Quick-eyed viewers can see this when Officer O'Brien gets out of the Darrin in front of Amelia Brown's house. The door slides forward into the fender.

Bottom line? Rocket Man is not much of a sci-fi movie, but does at least showcase the cultural sci-fi craze of the early 50s. For this reason alone, it's worth watching. Catching Francis, Agar and Garland in a movie together before they became sci-fi regulars, is fun too. It is still a B movie, so needs some slack cut for it.

1 comment:

rockinlumpy said...

Absolutely great blog you've got here, I've been going through it for a while now. I love these old 50s B movies, both sci-fi & horror. I own pretty much all the ones you've covered plus a lot that you haven't got to yet.

How can you not love dogs dressed in sheep's clothing pretending to be Killer Shrews. Or a Giant Gila monster busting through the cardboard wall to save us from having to listen to that damn horrible song again.

Or how about the lovely ladies in high heels that always have to flop on their face when being chased by the monster or space guy etc. They're always great to watch even though we know who's gonna win in the end.

So keep up the good work.